The fight against opioids in general, and fentanyl in particular, will continue to be long and frustrating, but a couple of developments this week provide some hope that our state and nation might be on the road to if not victory, at least containment.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday announced the Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force, which, as the Associated Press reported, “will bring together personnel and intelligence from throughout the Treasury Department — from its sanctions and intelligence arms to IRS Criminal Investigations — to more effectively collaborate on stopping the flow of drugs into the country.”
In addition, Yellen this week traveled to Mexico to promote her “friendshoring” initiative, in which officials from the United States, Mexico and China will collaborate on stopping fentanyl financing and curtailing Chinese chemical companies’ shipments of the materials used to make fentanyl to Latin America.
“We cannot end the U.S. opioid crisis and achieve greater security without looking beyond our borders,” Yellen said.
Working to stop fentanyl at the source seems an approach more likely to ultimately be successful than sending U.S. military forces into Mexico, a scenario that has gained favor with a number of Republicans.
Closer to home, also this week Gov. Jay Inslee said he will seek another $50 million in the current state budget to fight the opioid crisis. The Democratic governor wants to use the money to expand a variety of state programs and services that aim to prevent opioid use and treat opioid use disorder.
As the Seattle Times reported, the additional $50 million Inslee is requesting would boost public health outreach programs to raise awareness of the danger of fentanyl in schools and tribal communities, and expand community health hubs which provide medical and social services to those who use drugs.
The situation in Washington warrants increasing resources. According to the state Department of Health, 17,502 Washingtonians died from a drug overdose between 2007 and 2021; 68 percent of those deaths involved an opioid. “Since 2019,” the agency reports on its website, “the annual number of opioid drug overdose deaths has nearly doubled, from 827 deaths in 2019 to 1,619 in 2021.”
In Clark County, the numbers are sobering. From 2020-2022, there were 14.18 opioid-related deaths in the county per 100,000 residents, according to the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute, a staggering 262.4 percent increase from 2002-2004.
Nationwide, as of 2021 more than 300,000 people have died of opioids over the past 15 years, the state health department reported.
Indian Country is also hit particularly hard by the fentanyl crisis. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has introduced a bill that would boost hiring, retention and resources for tribal law enforcement agencies. During a Senate hearing this week, Cantwell said, “Make no mistake about it — the fentanyl crisis is a flood of poison entering Indian Country and communities, and it is not a crisis that our tribes can face alone.”
Indeed it will take a united, concentrated effort to address havoc wreaked by fentanyl and other opioids. And while the Treasury Department’s fentanyl task force and Inslee’s request to boost resources to combat opioids are relatively small steps, those small steps can add up to big improvements if communities find the will to make addressing the opioid crisis a priority.